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How herpes got its stigma

“It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” Mark Twain

(You can download this article on stigma as a PDF if you wish.)

For anyone in the twenty first century it is hard to believe that there was a time when ‘herpes’ was not a stigmatised and feared condition. But this is true. Less than forty years ago genital herpes was largely ignored. Newly diagnosed patients were not made to feel that a common skin condition had just ended their chance of having future relationships. Doctors knew that they were simply dealing with the manifestation of the common facial cold sore on a different site and they treated it appropriately. In the early 1980s things changed. How and why did this happen?

The history of the genital herpes stigma dates back a mere 30 years. Before then, the condition, which was first named by the Ancient Greeks, was well known to doctors – but it was not invested with the terror it commands today and the word herpes barely registered with the public.

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